An Anthropologist Tells of 1970s Upheaval in “Turkish Kaleidoscope”

15 August, 2021
A new graph­ic nov­el from Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press tells the sto­ry of Turkey in the 1970s.

In which the author of a graph­ic nov­el describes the process of work­ing with an illus­tra­tor to cre­ate a book that traces Turkey’s descent into polit­i­cal vio­lence in the 1970s, through the expe­ri­ences of four stu­dents on oppos­ing sides of the conflict.

Jen­ny White

It start­ed out as a straight-for­ward research project, an oral his­to­ry of Turkey in the 1970s, a time of great upheaval and vio­lence. As I flat­tened the vivid sto­ries told to me dur­ing the inter­views into schol­ar­ly analy­sis, I won­dered whether there was anoth­er way to get my ana­lyt­i­cal obser­va­tions across while retain­ing the vivid­ness of the sto­ries — per­haps in graph­ic form. Then the saga began: find the mon­ey, find an artist, learn an entire­ly dif­fer­ent way of writ­ing so that the artist knows what to draw, and pack­age ideas in a way that makes a read­er want to keep turn­ing pages. Below, I share with you the (to me) sur­pris­ing tech­ni­cal­i­ties and intri­cate process of writ­ing a schol­ar­ly graph­ic novel.

I first arrived in Turkey as a young MA stu­dent in 1975 in Ankara, the cap­i­tal, in the mid­dle of a vicious civ­il war. There were bomb­ings, gun­fights, and street bat­tles across the coun­try. Between 1976 and 1980, 5,000 civil­ians were killed in street vio­lence between the left and the right. The left had split into numer­ous groups that often shot at each oth­er. Bystanders were caught in the mid­dle. Twice I stum­bled into a hail of bul­lets while walk­ing past a cafe or a door on cam­pus that sud­den­ly flew open. One day, I learned that even school bus­es were seg­re­gat­ed, when some fel­low rid­ers pulled a young man from his seat, hit him on the head with a ham­mer, and pushed him out of the rolling vehi­cle. The pas­sen­gers then sang mer­ry fas­cist songs all the way down­town. At the nation­al lev­el, there were duel­ing gov­ern­ment min­istries, par­al­lel police forces and a fail­ing economy.

I left with my degree in 1978. A coup d’état in 1980 replaced street vio­lence with state vio­lence that bru­tal­ly repressed activists, par­tic­u­lar­ly on the left. Three years lat­er, the mil­i­tary allowed new elec­tions. The civil­ian gov­ern­ment that came to pow­er opened Turkey’s closed econ­o­my to the glob­al mar­ket and new con­sumer prod­ucts and hopes for upward mobil­i­ty pre­oc­cu­pied Turkey’s pop­u­la­tion. Amne­sia about the 1970s set in and lit­tle was writ­ten about the peri­od until very recently.

I returned to the U.S. and earned a PhD in social anthro­pol­o­gy, spe­cial­iz­ing in con­tem­po­rary Turk­ish soci­ety and pol­i­tics. This led to fur­ther years of liv­ing in Turkey as I car­ried out a vari­ety of research projects and pub­lished sev­er­al schol­ar­ly books, none of them about the 1970s. In between, in an act of nos­tal­gia for the lost civil­i­ties of the Ottoman Empire, I wrote three his­tor­i­cal nov­els set in 1880s Istan­bul. My most recent book, Turk­ish Kalei­do­scope, required the skills of both gen­res. A graph­ic book, it is set in Ankara in the 1970s and fol­lows four med­ical stu­dents as they become involved in vio­lent polit­i­cal activism on oppos­ing sides. It’s an explo­ration of mem­o­ry and place from the per­spec­tive of every­day lives, rather than an account of the main actors, ide­o­log­i­cal fac­tions, or met­rics of social change.

This project, like oth­ers before it, began with appli­ca­tions for research grants to sup­port a trip to Turkey to car­ry out inter­views, most­ly in Turk­ish. Stock­holm Uni­ver­si­ty Insti­tute for Turk­ish Stud­ies invit­ed me to vis­it for a sab­bat­i­cal and under­wrote the research. I car­ried out 32 oral his­to­ries in Turkey with a wide range of peo­ple: left/right/nonaligned, male/female, activist/bystander, Mus­lim/non-Mus­lim, Turk/Kurd, stu­dent, fac­to­ry own­er, and so on. This tri­an­gu­la­tion pro­duced a rich and tex­tured pic­ture of the peri­od, a his­to­ry from below. When doing the inter­views, I had no spe­cif­ic agen­da, though I dis­cour­aged any dis­cus­sion of ide­ol­o­gy. I allowed myself to be sur­prised by people’s sto­ries and moti­va­tions. People’s mem­o­ries of the time were vivid and what I record­ed were fas­ci­nat­ing, poignant com­ing-of-age sto­ries and turn­ing points in their lives. Often they seemed to relive their expe­ri­ences in the telling. They clear­ly thought that this was an impor­tant sto­ry that no one had asked about before.

As with my pre­vi­ous research, I ana­lyzed the inter­views but noticed that my analy­sis flat­tened the sto­ries as it fold­ed them into dis­cus­sions of abstract issues, like fac­tion­al­ism. I won­dered whether there was some way to make the same points, but retain the excep­tion­al qual­i­ty of the sto­ries and the nuances and con­tra­dic­tions they contained.

Turkish artist-illustrator Ergűn Gűndűz.
Turk­ish artist-illus­tra­tor Ergűn Gűndűz.

We ana­lyze data and build mod­els to try to explain the ori­gins of fac­tion­al­ism and descent into polit­i­cal vio­lence, but the real­i­ty always involves com­plex­i­ties of real actors nego­ti­at­ing cul­tur­al, social and his­tor­i­cal pres­sures. I want­ed to cap­ture that. My edi­tor at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press encour­aged me to write a graph­ic book and sent me proofs of two seri­ous graph­ic books they were pub­lish­ing. It was an intrigu­ing idea. I’m a fan of Art Spiegel­man, Joe Sac­co and Jason Lutes, and had myself used Perse­po­lis, Mar­jane Satrapi’s graph­ic account of her child­hood dur­ing the Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, to teach class­es about the Mid­dle East. I had read Özge Samancı’s book, Dare to Dis­ap­point, a graph­ic account of her child­hood in Turkey. The prob­lem was that I couldn’t draw.

This led to anoth­er round of grant pro­pos­als to pay an artist for the exten­sive amount of time need­ed to illus­trate a book-length man­u­script. I had moved per­ma­nent­ly to Swe­den by this time and was award­ed a grant by the Riks­bankens Jubileums­fond that allowed me to go ahead. I thought that the book should be drawn by a Turk­ish artist who could cap­ture the nuances of the soci­ety and who could remem­ber the 1970s, which looked very dif­fer­ent from today, with­out becom­ing ensnared in the pol­i­tics, that is, who wouldn’t balk at being asked to rep­re­sent both right and left sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly. Through a mutu­al friend, I was intro­duced to Ergűn Gűndűz, a high­ly expe­ri­enced and tal­ent­ed artist who was sen­si­tive to these nuances and could evoke Turkey in the 1970s (when he was a teenag­er). We met for lunch and I was impressed by his pro­fes­sion­al­ism as well as the broad range of styles he had mas­tered. Once we agreed to work togeth­er, I sent pho­tos and descrip­tions to Istan­bul and he sent back sketch­es to me in Stock­holm. He devel­oped a dis­tinc­tive style for this book.

The process of writ­ing a graph­ic book, though, was new to me. Draw­ing on my back­ground as a nov­el­ist as well as anthro­pol­o­gist, I com­bined ethnog­ra­phy, mem­oir and life his­to­ry with tech­niques of sto­ry­telling and dia­logue more com­mon­ly used in writ­ing fic­tion. I sent Ergűn an 80-page sin­gle-spaced “sto­ry­board.” His response was puz­zle­ment: “I can’t draw what’s in people’s heads.”

Thus began my edu­ca­tion in writ­ing a prop­er sto­ry­board which, in the end, looked very much like a stripped-down screen­play. There­in lies the chal­lenge: You must embed all of your ideas and data in brief speech bub­bles, explana­to­ry box­es, or action. Over a year and a half, I trav­eled back and forth to Istan­bul, spend­ing almost two months in total, dis­cussing every word, every scene, every char­ac­ter with Ergűn, who would sketch as we spoke. Then he turned his sketch­es into graph­ic art and send me the pages to Stock­holm, which I would edit and send back in round after round. On my last vis­it, just before Covid hit, we spent twelve hours in his stu­dio, eat­ing on our feet, to get the final edits done. There is an amaz­ing amount of detail, both visu­al and tex­tu­al. Just before pub­li­ca­tion, I real­ized that one of the char­ac­ters sport­ed a mus­tache on one page, but not on the oth­er. Incred­i­bly, we had missed that. The pro­duc­tion was a team effort, with dif­fer­ent experts copy­edit­ing, set­ting the text elec­tron­i­cal­ly on a sep­a­rate lay­er in the file con­tain­ing the draw­ings, and col­or edit­ing. Prince­ton cre­at­ed a cool pro­mo­tion­al video and a col­league and I devel­oped a freely avail­able anno­tat­ed Spo­ti­fy playlist of Turk­ish songs from the 1970s. A Turk­ish col­league in the U.S. wrote to tell me that the songs had made him cry.

Turk­ish Kalei­do­scope lays out the per­son­al moti­va­tions and actions of a vari­ety of ordi­nary peo­ple who were direct­ly or indi­rect­ly involved in right­ist and left­ist activism in the 1970s, focus­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly on four main char­ac­ters, two on the left and two on the right. The char­ac­ters and their sto­ries are merged and fic­tion­al­ized to cre­ate a dra­mat­ic arc. (I had told the peo­ple I inter­viewed that their sto­ries might be merged and anonymized and they had agreed to that.) Though none of the peo­ple I inter­viewed knew each oth­er, link­ing the char­ac­ters in the book cre­ates a pow­er­ful nar­ra­tive that engages read­ers, regard­less of famil­iar­i­ty with the set­ting or his­tor­i­cal con­text, which is giv­en in a short writ­ten intro­duc­tion. Some of the scenes are from my own expe­ri­ence, but most of the sto­ries are tak­en from the inter­views. The anony­mous read­ers for Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press pro­vid­ed prac­ti­cal sug­ges­tions for tight­en­ing up the for­mat, includ­ing how to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly mark the begin­ning of each new sec­tion, point of view, time and location.

We see the char­ac­ters in their youth. We wit­ness how they are ini­ti­at­ed into vio­lent group activ­i­ty in var­i­ous ways — unwill­ing­ly, by acci­dent, in con­se­quence of read­ing a book, influ­enced by friends, or because they hold cer­tain beliefs or emo­tions. The char­ac­ters strug­gle to find their own path through the thick­et of ide­o­log­i­cal approach­es and groups. Once asso­ci­at­ed with a group, the inter­nal hier­ar­chi­cal mech­a­nism takes over and the group becomes the per­son­’s life. Love and sex­u­al­i­ty are tight­ly cir­cum­scribed, both on the left and the right. Some of the char­ac­ters have an expe­ri­ence, seem­ing­ly triv­ial, that caus­es their lives to veer in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion. Objects can have a tal­is­man­ic pow­er: a mis­placed poster, a book, T‑shirt, or tele­scope on the roof. If they decide to leave, break­ing away from a polit­i­cal group is fraught with phys­i­cal dan­ger. Vio­lence is ubiq­ui­tous, ran­dom, bru­tal and often an expres­sion of mem­bers’ mas­culin­i­ty, rather than any par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­o­gy. The book moves through the decade from 1970 to 1980, incor­po­rat­ing sev­er­al (though not all) of the major polit­i­cal events that affect­ed the char­ac­ters, includ­ing the 1980 coup d’état and its after­math. Since the peri­od of the 1970s was a dark peri­od in many ways and the air was heav­i­ly pol­lut­ed, the book is drawn in gray tones and sepia, except where a major char­ac­ter is intro­duced and the artist uses the red of spilled blood.

The Prince­ton read­ers want­ed us to bring the book up to the present, so two of the char­ac­ters meet again by chance decades lat­er and catch up on what has hap­pened to them. The scenes set in the present are drawn in full col­or. We gave the main char­ac­ters chil­dren, part­ly in order to avoid direct­ly depict­ing any cur­rent­ly polit­i­cal­ly sen­si­tive top­ics. In the descrip­tive text that accom­pa­nies the chil­dren, I have tried to bring into their lives all the social and glob­al changes that would have affect­ed them after 1980. Two of the chil­dren appear in a sketch of the 2013 Gezi Park protests. At this point, the book was offi­cial­ly des­ig­nat­ed to be “fic­tion.” 

“I believe that graph­ic books work because they invite the read­er to incor­po­rate their own expe­ri­ences in the men­tal process of “fig­ur­ing it out.” By con­trast, a schol­ar­ly analy­sis fig­ures it out for the read­er, who fol­lows along, but rarely steps far off the pre­pared path.”

To my sur­prise, I found that the graph­ic approach allows the inclu­sion of a fuller spec­trum of the vari­ables that pro­vide a con­text for fac­tion­al­ism (includ­ing gen­der and social class) and brings these vari­ables into con­ver­sa­tion with each oth­er. This ide­al­ly allows the read­er to grasp under­ly­ing social and polit­i­cal pat­terns and draw con­clu­sions about their rel­e­vance to today’s polar­ized soci­ety and the poten­tial for inter-group vio­lence. The book was used in a U.S. col­lege class­room and I was able to read the stu­dent eval­u­a­tions and speak with the stu­dents via Zoom. (A teacher’s review of the book will appear in an upcom­ing RoMES issue on ped­a­gogy.) I was thrilled and also moved to find that the stu­dents made con­nec­tions to their own lives. Using the Jan­u­ary 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capi­tol as an exam­ple, one stu­dent said it made him think about the dis­tance between dis­agree­ment and vio­lence, what had to hap­pen to get from one to the oth­er. Anoth­er stu­dent said that the book spoke to her because her val­ues dif­fered from those of oth­er stu­dents on cam­pus and she felt uncom­fort­able. An Iraqi stu­dent said that what he saw in the book was exact­ly what was going on in Iraq. I believe that graph­ic books work because they invite the read­er to incor­po­rate their own expe­ri­ences in the men­tal process of “fig­ur­ing it out.” By con­trast, a schol­ar­ly analy­sis fig­ures it out for the read­er, who fol­lows along, but rarely steps far off the pre­pared path.

I hope with this book to advance crit­i­cal think­ing about the mul­ti­ple roots of social vio­lence and to present com­plex moti­va­tions in a cre­ative form that is able to con­vey both com­plex­i­ty and depth. It wasn’t my intent to cre­ate an offi­cial account of the 1970s. None of the voic­es in the text, my own includ­ed, are assumed to be reli­able nar­ra­tors. What read­ers get instead is a mul­ti-lay­ered and con­tin­u­al­ly trans­form­ing con­ver­sa­tion among dis­parate voic­es. Turk­ish Kalei­do­scope asks uni­ver­sal ques­tions about what caus­es peo­ple to sac­ri­fice them­selves for an auto­crat­ic leader, to engage in vio­lent acts, and to split off from that cause or leader. What effect do their actions have on their own lives and those of their chil­dren? The graph­ic for­mat allows the read­er to ask these ques­tions of them­selves as well and helps guide them to pos­si­ble answers. The sus­pi­cion lingers that graph­ics dumb down con­tent and ideas, but I found that the oppo­site is true, that analy­ses can become more sophis­ti­cat­ed and effec­tive if read­ers are giv­en per­mis­sion to participate.

Jenny White is a social anthropologist and professor at the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies. Her many books include Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks (Princeton) and the novel The Winter Thief. She lives in Stockholm.